King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Better living through chemistry: Does trading away your team's heart and soul really mean anything? The next two months will offer some clues.

By Salon Staff
Published August 2, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

The flurry of deadline dealing Saturday might or might not affect who goes to or wins the playoffs this year -- the columnist stated boldly -- but it sets up the rest of 2004 as a nice little referendum on team chemistry, one of my favorite subjects.

I'm willing to be convinced otherwise, but I think "chemistry" is a kind of superstition in sports. It's also a trait that's applied in retrospect to explain away the shortcomings of a commentator's predictions. "I thought the Monsters would be lousy this year but they're actually pretty good. They must have great chemistry. The Mammoths, meanwhile, who I thought would be great, are terrible. Clearly they've got bad chemistry."

Chemistry is easy to talk about because it's impossible to measure, impossible to disprove any statement made about it. This makes it almost the exact opposite of actual chemistry, by the way. A better word would be "metaphysics."

The Monsters are probably all happy because they're winning. And the Mammoths are probably grumpy because they're losing. And let's not talk about those harmonious teams that are lousy, or the championship teams whose players can't stand each other. Chemistry's far too important to seriously consider whether it actually exists.

Aside from "deadline winners and losers," no phrase was typed more often this weekend by baseball typists than "heart and soul," in regard to Paul Lo Duca, the catcher the Dodgers traded to the Marlins. He was not just the heart of the Dodgers, not just the soul, but the heart and soul, people. As in, I fell in love with you, heart and soul, the way a fool would do, madly.

In other chemistry news, the Red Sox traded away clubhouse cancer Nomar Garciaparra, the sulking superstar shortstop, to the Cubs and, in the same deal, got light-hitting Twins first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, who had gone from being a heart-and-soul (because you held me tight) to being an unhappy camper when his name began appearing in trade talk. Presumably, he'll return to heart-and-soul status in Boston (and stole a kiss in the night). In a separate, minor deal, the Red Sox got Dave Roberts, an outfielder and reputed "clubhouse guy," from the Dodgers.

A lot of the criticism of the Dodgers' end of the Lo Duca deal is how they traded away their heart and soul (I begged to be adored), a decent if overrated and aging catcher.

The Dodgers, this line of reasoning goes, messed with success. They were three and a half games ahead of the Padres in the N.L. West, and they decided to risk it by shaking up the clubhouse, trading away Lo Duca, fine set-up man Guillermo Mota, and Juan Encarnacion, an expensive bust in the outfield. Plus they traded clubhouse presence Roberts, who had been a starter but was no longer.

A clubhouse presence is one step below a heart and soul (lost control, and tumbled overboard, gladly).

Sure, they got Brad Penny, a front-of-the-rotation starter, and Hee Seop Choi, who is more of a personality test than a player right now: Old-school folks hate him because he strikes out too much and doesn't hit for a high average. New-school folks love him because he's a walk machine with some power. The Dodgers also flipped a pitching prospect they got from the Marlins and added a couple more to get ancient outfielder Steve Finley from the Diamondbacks.

But the point is the Dodgers screwed with their metaphysics, I mean chemistry, by trading away Lo Duca. How can you win without your heart and soul (that magic night we kissed)?

I think the answer to that is: The same way you win with your heart and soul (there in the moon mist). You score more runs than the other team. I'm reminded of my favorite boxing joke, in which the pug asks his priest if it would help him to pray for a victory before a fight. "It couldn't hurt," the priest says, "but it'd be even better if you could punch a little."

In Lo Duca's three years as a regular with the Dodgers, they'd averaged 87.7 wins a year, good for second place once and third place twice. The last time the Dodgers made the playoffs was in 1996, two years before Lo Duca had his first cup of coffee in Los Angeles and five years before he stuck. I'm not saying it's even remotely Lo Duca's fault that the Dodgers haven't won, but where's the evidence that his presence is indispensable to their pennant hopes?

The Red Sox were all about chemistry last year -- remember "Cowboy up"? -- which is to say they played better than most observers thought they were going to play. This year they're underachieving. Must be the fault of Garciaparra, who got pissed off when the Sox went after Alex Rodriguez in the offseason and he never got over it.

Maybe it is his fault. At the time of the trade, the Red Sox were better when Garciaparra didn't play (37-28) than when he did (19-17). What I don't understand is how Garciaparra's lousy attitude has, say, made Pedro Martinez's earned-run average nearly double, or how it's made Derek Lowe, a good pitcher in 2002 and a so-so one in '03, even worse in '04.

Perhaps we'll find out in the coming two months. Boston had little to lose because Garciaparra is going to be a free agent at the end of the season and wasn't going to re-sign, so rolling the dice that two months of the improved defense of Mientkiewicz and former Expos shortstop Orlando Cabrera will be better than two months of Nomar's hitting is a fairly low-risk way to get something back for him.

If the Sox, out of it in the A.L. East but tied for second, one game out in the wild card race, have a big finish, that'll be a vote for better living through meta-chemistry.

If the Dodgers go in the tank, that'll be another vote for heart and soul (Oh, but your lips were thrilling). Another would be if Lo Duca leads the Marlins, five and a half games behind in the wild card and six out in the N.L. East, to the playoffs, on which you shouldn't bet your chemistry set.

Chemistry is going to win this vote, you know. Mientkiewicz was unhappy in Minnesota and now goes to Boston. Garciaparra was unhappy in Boston and now goes to the Cubs. If their new teams do well, it'll be because they brought in a formerly disgruntled guy who was liberated, happy in his new surroundings. If they do poorly, it'll be because they brought in a disgruntled guy who upset the chemistry.

If the Twins do well without Mientkiewicz, it'll be because they rid themselves of a disgruntled guy. If they do poorly, it'll be because they lost their (that little kiss you stole held all my) heart and soul, who was their leader even when he was disgruntled -- just look at their July record with an unhappy Minky. They'd gone 16-10 and won nine of their last 11.

The nice thing about arguing metaphysics is you can never lose.

Previous column: Who picked the Cards? Ahem

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